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March 8, 2011


Posted by Stephen

William Boyd is the author of 10 novels, including A Good Man in Africa, winner of the Whitbread Award and the Somerset Maugham Award; An Ice-Cream War, winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Brazzaville Beach, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Any Human Heart, winner of the Prix Jean Monnet; and Restless, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year. His latest novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, described by Stephen King as “great suspense stuff, told with flair, compassion, and a high sense of humor,” is the story of Adam Kindred, a young climatologist in London whose chance encounter with a fellow diner at an Italian bistro leads to a series of malign accidents through which Adam loses everything --- home, family, friends, job, reputation, passport, credit cards, cell phone --- never to get them back. In this essay, Boyd shares the London books that informed his writing.

thunderstorms.JPGWarning: May reveal plot points.

Reading London
The London Encyclopaedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert
Without any doubt this is the best single volume book on London --- 1,000 pages long, copiously illustrated with period black-and-white prints, its articles both incredibly informative and entertainingly readable. Here are two entries selected at random to give you an idea of its astonishing detail and scholarship: “Fortis Road NW5. Originally a farm track through Fortis Field, land which perhaps belonged to the owners of Fortis Green. In 1856–62 Ford Madox Brown lived at No. 56 where he painted Work.” And this: “Old Swan 116 Battersea Church Road SW11. Public House built in 1969 incorporating timber from old Thames sailing barges. The original Old Swan was first mentioned in 1215, when it was patronised by King John’s watermen. Large windows give extensive views over the river.”I used this book as a constant source of information while writing Ordinary Thunderstorms --- not so much as a way of claiming to seem steeped in Londoniana but more to tap into the city’s layers and layers of history. All the places Adam Kindred went on his journey downriver to the sea --- all the streets he traversed, districts he lived in, spots he visited --- were referenced in The London Encyclopaedia to gain a sense of that old city --- those old cities—residing just beneath the surface of the modern one.
The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Adam Kindred is a climatologist whose particular speciality is to do with cloudseeding --- a scientific method designed to make clouds deliver up their moisture as rain on the earth beneath. I consulted many books on climatology but was continually delighted and diverted by this one. Clouds are a constant presence in our lives—like trees and plants and flowers --- so why shouldn’t we be curious about them, learn their names, understand what they’re capable of? Another book that provided a moretechnical version of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s engaging anecdotal style was The Cloud Book by Richard Hamblyn. One consequence of writing Ordinary Thunderstorms is that I am even more fascinated by the weather than I was before. Both these books admirably feed this obsession.
The Truth About Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It by Marcia Angell, M.D.
On one level, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller, and in order to make my thriller plot function well, I needed a hugely powerful malevolent organization to act as the “evil force” threatening my hero. The obvious choices presented themselves: bankers, organized crime, the armaments industry, the petroleum industry, the Russian Mafia, etc., etc. Luckily for me, however, I had a friend who worked in one of the world’s largest drug companies and he had --- in confidence --- told me of some of the dirty tricks drug companies get up to in order to license their products and get them sold. So I started to do my research. I was amazed to find out how many books lay bare the big pharmaceutical companies’ manipulation of markets and human fallibilities to sell their products. Of course pharmaceutical drugs are a blessing, but what is not generally known is that a successful drug can generate billions of dollars of profit over its licensed lifetime. In any industry, whenever this level of vast recompense is on offer, the stakes rise inexorably and the temptation to bend the rules, to ignore good working practice, to cover up inadequacies, to overhype the integrity of the product can become overwhelming. Marcia Angell’s superbly argued book makes for very sobering reading. So Big Pharma became my villain --- and I made nothing up. Another fascinating book on the same subject is Inside the FDA by Fran Hawthorne.
Thames: Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd
When I finished writing Ordinary Thunderstorms, I realized that the River Thames had effectively become one of the novel’s characters. Peter Ackroyd’s history of London’s river from Roman times until today is wonderfully evocative and expertly researched. I think that one of the factors that makes the Thames so special in London is that it is so dramatically tidal --- the river rises and falls some twenty feet, twice a day. This is not true, for example, of the Seine in Paris, the Tiber in Rome, or the Hudson in New York. Every time you walk by the Thames, it is changing --- sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in astonishing ways. At low tide it can look like an African river in time of drought; at high tide it takes on the serenity of the Danube. All rivers are living things, but the Thames seems livelier than most, which perhaps explains why it has so imprinted itself on the minds of Londoners and those artists and writers who take an interest in it. Another fascinating anthology of London is Iain Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances. Sinclair is London’s most acclaimed living chronicler, and in this book he has culled a huge variety of texts to give a sense of the city’s infinite mutability.
Dark Heart by Nick Davies
In Ordinary Thunderstorms, when Adam Kindred decides not to turn himself in to the police but instead to flee and seek safety in London’s underclass, he enters a realm that is only occasionally visible to the run-of-the-mill Londoner. I did my own research by walking around parts of London with my eyes and my ears open and occasionally talking to people who were happy to be talked to. The point to be made, I think, is that in all the great cities of the Western world, many of their citizens are living lives of such abject poverty, such brutality, and such hopelessness, as to be virtually unimaginable. I set my imagination to work, trying to conjure up the lives of these citizens of London --- the desperate, the lost, and the exploited. There are many testimonials from survivors --- prostitutes, addicts, the abused—but I found Nick Davies’s particularly clear-eyed and unsentimental --- he is a great journalist. These reports from the lower depths of our society do not make for comfortable reading, but they are salutary and shake our inevitable complacency and wishful thinking that all is fundamentally well. The late Gordon Burn’s account of one of Britain’s most notorious and depraved serial killers, Fred West, in Happy Like Murderers, is perhaps the touchstone that none of us want to encounter. Burn was an expert in this form of bleak reportage. Nothing is to be gained by pretending that people like Fred West and his fellow monsters don’t exist. We should be grateful that writers like Nick Davies and Gordon Burn are prepared to shine the light of truth upon them.